Former Child Soldier Recalls Experiences in Sierra Leone
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JEFFREY BROWN: In many parts of the world today, notably in Africa, the face of modern conflict is often a child’s face: preteens and teenagers with AK-47’s and machetes, often high on drugs, killing and being killed.
The United Nations estimates some 300,000 children are exploited as child soldiers in 19 countries around the world. And last month, representatives of 58 countries met in Paris to draft protocols to prevent children from being used as soldiers.
Thousands of these children have died, and many more have been wounded, suffering from physical, as well as emotional, traumas. A new book gives these child warriors a powerful voice, through the experiences of a boy who was 12 when Sierra Leone’s civil war came to his village in 1993.
In “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solder,” Ishmael Beah writes of being separated forever from his family and joining a group of boys who wandered a countryside beset by violence and hunger, before being picked up by government troops and impressed into the army as a soldier.
After three years of horrific fighting, he was handed over to UNICEF workers and taken to a rehabilitation center, where he began to get his life back. Beah came to America when he was 17, graduated from Oberlin College in 2004, and wrote his story.
Ishmael Beah is now 26. I talked with him on a recent visit to Washington.
Before the war
JEFFREY BROWN: This is a book about war, but going backward in time to your first 12 years, war was not part of your life then, right?
ISHMAEL BEAH, Former Boy Soldier, Sierra Leone: No, not at all. I had a very simple, unremarkable and happy life. And I grew up in a very small town. And so my life was made up of, you know, in the morning going to the river to fetch water -- no tap water, and no electricity -- and, you know, bathing in the river, and then going to school, and playing soccer afterwards.
JEFFREY BROWN: And your big obsession was hip-hop music?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes. At the age of 8, I discovered hip-hop music. You know, my life was basically filled with those things, you know, just dancing, trying to mimic these rappers and reciting Shakespeare and going to school, playing soccer games, being mischievous, going to my...
JEFFREY BROWN: Like a boy?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Just like any regular boy.
JEFFREY BROWN: The civil war had started, but it was off in the distance?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes.
'You could feel the change'
JEFFREY BROWN: And then, suddenly, it was no longer in the distance.
ISHMAEL BEAH: You know, when the war came, one of the things that I still remember very significantly, it was how the landscape itself just started to change, the sounds, because as a kid, I was very aware and keen to that.
In the morning, there were a lot of birds singing and things like that. So once the war started and came to my part of the country, there were gunshots, people were being killed in different ways, and the birds stopped singing.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean you could sense what were the changes?
ISHMAEL BEAH: You could sense the changes. And I was afraid to walk down the path or to walk down the road anymore. Even in the wind felt very harsh; you could feel the change, you know.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know what's interesting to me? In this period when you're running away from, trying to escape the war, you describe things in great detail, just as you just did. When you become a soldier yourself, when you're brought into the army, you write -- there's a lot of detail, very horrific detail, but it's a little bit blurrier, that experience.
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that the way -- does the writing reflect the way it felt at the time?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes. One of the things that I knew early on when I decided to write this book, I knew that it would be a mistake to write about how I feel now.
I wanted to write about how I felt then, not now exactly, with no remorse, no pity or anything, because I felt like that would be the only way that people can actually come along this journey and be able to see the landscape, see how it was changing, see how it was affecting me and those around me, and so that people can actually see the humanity of the people there and how these cultures and traditions disintegrated because of this violence that was spreading so quickly.
'Kill or be killed'
JEFFREY BROWN: When you were taken into the army, it became your family, in a sense.
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you did some awful things. You were killing people, sometimes executing people.
ISHMAEL BEAH: Well, yes. What happens in the context of war is that, in order for you to make a child into a killer, you destroy everything that they know, which is what happened to me and my town. My family was killed, all of my family, so I had nothing.
And lastly, I was pressed into this, not given a choice. But in the beginning, it's difficult. But as time goes on, this becomes your reality. These groups and the squad becomes your surrogate family, and you look up to them.
And this war had gotten on to the point where it was either kill or be killed. So every day of living in that war, if you lived through it, required somebody else dying. That's basically what it came down to.
JEFFREY BROWN: Did you feel that at the time? I mean, did you know the horror of that life at the time? Or was it just a kill or be killed sense of survival?
ISHMAEL BEAH: In the beginning -- the kill or be killed was very -- you knew that, because, say, for example, walking on the path, and we come across somebody, and the lieutenant says to somebody in the squad, one of the kids, you know, "shoot this guy," and you stop.
You ask, "Why? He doesn't look so bad." Then that person gets shot who's asking the question. So there was no time to second guess, so even your unit would kill you if you did not carry out certain things.
But in terms of descending into this hell, the first major time that we went into battle was the time that you knew what was going on. You know, it was very apparent that you were descending into this hell.
But after that, you know, you were traumatized, and the constant use of drugs, and the constant violence, this became so normalized so quickly that it became your world, and you believed in the rhetoric and everything that was happening, that there was no remorse, no compassion for anything, and it just became what you did.
'It's not your fault'
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you conclude that what happened to you, the person that you became for those years, could happen to anyone?
ISHMAEL BEAH: It's not specific to Africans or wherever there are civil wars. If you're there, you never know how you will react. We all have that capability.
JEFFREY BROWN: When you were taken from the war to the rehabilitation center by UNICEF, one of the things that people kept saying to you was this line, "None of this is your fault." They were in a sense, I guess, trying to give you a sense that you could live again, but you write that you didn't want to hear that.
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes, because there are several things. I think sometimes when people see this they think the children are associated as being perpetrators, but they're not.
What happens is, you know, first of all, you've lost family, and then you're pressed into this conflict, and these groups becomes like your family, and then you're removed from them. So you feel deceived, in a lot of ways.
And then, when you are at the rehabilitation center, where you have to undo a lot of things, then somebody says to you, "It's not your fault," it's almost saying that -- belittling you as a soldier, belittling you as a combatant.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean not taking you seriously.
ISHMAEL BEAH: Not taking you seriously.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you were wanting to be taken seriously.
ISHMAEL BEAH: You wanted to be taken seriously, because this is what you've been doing for a few years, and it's become so part of your make-up, you know, it's become part of your psychology. You believe in it so much that, when somebody says, "It's not your fault," it's almost saying that you're not strong enough, you know, so that's really upsetting.
But this is just, you know, a process. It takes a while for you to undo that psychological makeup.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean to realize that it actually was not your fault?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes, to realize that. But at that time, that was really upsetting. But as time went on, it changed, you know? You began to believe them, not because of the words themselves, but because of the genuine care, compassion behind it.
They were willing to look at us, just as children, regardless of what we had been a part of. And that is what gave us, some of us, the chance to begin thinking that we can actually begin ourselves again, that trust, you know, because we also learned not to trust anyone.
And, you know, after having lived through war, we had to relearn how to sleep again, how the sit in one place for a while, how to not be in a constant state of violence. So there's a lot of undoings that had to happen in order for us to return to whatever little of our childhood was left.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it's almost, in a way, kind of surreal to sit here with you, calmly talking about this past that you lived through. Does it feel that way to you?
ISHMAEL BEAH: It does feel that way. You know, surviving that war, you know, I feel extremely lucky. And, you know, I don't think surviving that war meant that I was able to fight well or run fast or smart, none of it. I think it was pure luck and the grace of God.
And I think for me, you know, that in itself is a blessing, having come from that, you know, because the chances of my dying there were so much greater. But me sitting here and talking to you goes to really show the possibility that children can actually regain their lives, if given the right support and care and help, because, like you said, if you had met me several years ago when I was in that war, you would have never thought you and I could sit down and have a conversation. But here we are.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I'm glad we could do it.
ISHMAEL BEAH: Me, too.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ishmael Beah, thanks for talking to us.
ISHMAEL BEAH: You're welcome.